Editor’s Note: The following story contains material related to loss of life, violence, and other graphic content.
When Associated Press (AP) reporters Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka, along with field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, became aware of the imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, they made their way to Mariupol. As a port city on the Azov Sea comparable in size to Long Beach, California, Mariupol held significant strategic importance for the Russian troops and quickly came under attack within hours of the invasion. Contrary to the Kremlin’s assertions, the civilians became the immediate target.
Co-produced by AP and Frontline|PBS, the feature film 20 Days in Mariupol (2023) screening this month in New York and Los Angeles presents raw documentation of life during the Russian siege of Mariupol, as witnessed through the lens of AP video journalist Mstyslav Chernov.
Moving from improvised bomb shelters to the looted streets with burnt houses, the team documents how the city rapidly deteriorates under pressure. The film follows the AP team as they document the desperate conditions, including the last functioning hospital that tirelessly saves the wounded amidst dwindling resources. The Russians sever essential services such as electricity, water, and food supply, plunging the city into further chaos. Cell phone connections eventually vanish as the situation worsened, leaving Chernov and Maloletka as the only international reporters in the city under blockade.
Mstyslav Chernov, an experienced war correspondent and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was surprised the city fell apart quickly. “Now I know it was because of the lack of communication,” he shared during a panel after a preview screening of the film at Manhattan’s Film Forum on July 11.
Panic and despair grew in the residents left in isolation and uncertainty, exacerbated by constant indiscriminate air attacks, leaving no place to hide. One of them hit the maternity hospital, where Chernov and Maloletka would capture defining images of this war.
Knowing Mariupol is encircled, with no green corridors opened for evacuation, and the Russians having their names on the list, the crew struggles to leave the city to transmit their footage. Hiding their camera in the car seats, the team escapes, passing through 15 Russian checkpoints. “We hid our SD card in the tampon box of our producer,” Chernov said during the talk.
As the situation becomes increasingly grim to the team, Chernov’s narrative diverts from reporting to intimate reflections on the war and his role as a correspondent. Trying to balance the rigid journalistic tone of the footage and the emotionally overwhelming content, Chernov recorded a movie voiceover with an iPhone mic. Opting for a “simple raw recording” rather than high-resolution clarity, he deems it the aptest for the film’s tone of voice, making it “not too emotional, neither distant.”
Accompanied by the somber music composed by Jordan Dykstra, based in Brooklyn, the film emerged as a winner of the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition this year.
20 Days in Mariupol is on view starting July 14 at Film Forum in New York and July 21 at Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles.